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Superintendent details next steps after voters passed Wausau school referendum

Spring Election 2022
Published: Apr. 6, 2022 at 5:30 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Wausau School District leaders will begin the next steps in the process to make projects it asked the community to fund a reality after voters approved a referendum Tuesday.

After multiple conversations and surveys with the public, the final referendum will help the district with maintenance costs that are too big for its typical budget, such as replacing roofs or heating and cooling systems. There are several safety improvements as well, both inside and outside of school buildings. Some elementary schools are projected to grow too, so changes to those buildings will reflect that expected growth. The biggest changes will come to John Muir Middle School and Wausau West High School, with major renovations happening, along with new additions.

Superintendent Keith Hilts said they take this approval humbly and respectfully as a gift to help students and staff grow. He anticipates it will take four years to complete all of these projects.

“We have a meeting scheduled Friday, actually, to prioritize our list because this is a multi-year -- we have to talk about how we’re going to stage it,” he explained. “Safety and security, that was one of the things the board said we absolutely had to have that, so I’m thinking that’s going to be a big piece.”

As they work to prioritize projects, he thinks the bigger projects at John Muir and Wausau West will be started first since they will take longer to complete. He added that people could begin to see some changes as early as this summer, likely things like athletic fields, however, most construction or changes will not begin for another year. That is because after they prioritize the projects, they have to get staff input, design them, and put them out for bid. He expects March, 2023 is when people will really begin to see changes happening.

As for property tax impacts, the district’s portion will go down even with these projects. Years ago, the district was able to pay off a debt early, saving about $6 million in interest that they were able to reallocate. Despite construction and supply costs going up, Hilts said they cannot go past the mill rate that voters approved adding that they budgeted for inflation. With rising costs and interest rates expected to rise, he said they may take out the loans now to capture the current low-interest rates.

It has been several years since the district first asked the public to approve many of the changes this referendum will make. Hilts said in addition to one version merging school buildings, which many voters were against, some families’ displeasure with how the district handled pandemic protocols also likely impacted the previous referendum’s failure last election. Looking at voter turnout specifically as it pertains to the referendum, he said this current referendum passed with about 10% more approval and fewer votes than the last time it was on the ballot.

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